Purcellville in 2018: Town Shuffles Management of Fireman’s Field; Reinstates Police Chief

Following a previous year filled with controversy, investigations and skepticism, the Town of Purcellville in 2018 was able to distance itself a bit from the muck, but was still forced to deal with the aftermath and a new management fiasco.

The year started off with Shaun Alexander Enterprises taking over management of the 15.89-acre Fireman’s Field complex on Jan. 1, replacing the Loudoun County Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Services’ 33-year tenure maintaining the athletic fields and the Purcellville Teen Center’s more than decade-long term operating the 8,500-square-foot Bush Tabernacle. Alexander then was subcontracted with Play to Win, a regional sports management company, to manage day-to-day operations in the tabernacle. He was originally contracted to pay the town $120,000 in rent in 2018, with those payments increasing by $10,000 each year until 2022.

At that time, multiple investigations were also in process—one reviewing allegations of misconduct against Police Chief Cynthia McAlister and another reviewing allegations against former interim town manager Alex Vanegas that he had mismanaged an initial investigation on McAlister and sexual harassment claims against Town Attorney Sally Hankins.

John Anzivino was also beginning his third week working as interim town manager after replacing Vanegas, who was placed on administrative leave just a month prior. Hank Day, the former Warrenton town attorney, was also filling in for Hankins.

When February hit, the town decided to install 10 removable barriers in the Country Club Hills and Catoctin Meadows neighborhoods to reduce cut-through traffic after months of resident uproar. It later removed the barriers, installed signage and met with residents six times to discuss the issue.

“We inherited and did not shy away from taking ownership of [the cut-through traffic issue] and piloting solutions to address it,” said Mayor Kwasi Fraser.

On March 13, the council voted to appoint David Mekarski as the town’s eighth permanent town manager from a pool of 29 candidates. Mekarksi came to the town following 12 years working as the village administrator of Olympia Fields, IL, and formerly as the city manager of Vero Beach, FL.

In April, Karen Jimmerson announced that she would step down from her seat on the Town Council after nearly four years.

About that same time, Alexander’s management of Fireman’s Field began to dematerialize. When Play to Win announced that it would increase user fees in the complex, the Upper Loudoun Youth Football League announced that it would search for a new home to play its 2018 season, after 49 years in the complex.

In response, Supervisor Tony Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) sent Fraser and the Town Council a letter offering his help by bringing the county’s parks and recreation department back in to maintain the fields.

Purcellville’s Parks and Recreation Division Manager Amie Ware also informed Fraser and Mekarski in April that Alexander requested an $87,500 reimbursement for initial repairs, cleanup and maintenance of the complex. While that request was $27,500 more than what the town was contractually obligated to pay, the Town Council in June agreed to reimburse Alexander $60,000.

The Wilson Elser law firm also released their investigation of Vanegas and Hankins in April, finding that Vanegas “failed to properly manage and failed to exercise proper judgment” in the initial McAlister investigation and that allegations against Hankins were “frivolous” and “meritless.”

The Town Council voted on April 10 to fire Vanegas and reinstate Hankins.

The May 1 town elections saw Fraser beat out lifelong town resident Chris Thompson by a 13-point margin to win a third consecutive term. Ted Greenly, Joel Grewe and Tip Stinnette also were elected to the Town Council for their first times.

Perhaps the most anticipated event of 2018 happened on July 30, when the Wilson Elser law firm and retired police chief Timothy Longo released the findings of the town’s final investigation, which reviewed Vanegas’ initial investigation of McAlister’s alleged misconduct. It showed that “there was no evidence of untruthfulness or misconduct by Chief McAlister.” She was reinstated on Aug. 1 after nearly a year on paid administrative leave.

Altogether, the investigations, which began in August 2017, cost the town $475,042. An additional $262,738 was paid to McAlister, Hankins, Vanegas and two other staffers placed on administrative leave. $153,321 was also paid to Anzivino and Day.

“2018 was a year of discovery and positioning our organization to excel in meeting the needs of our community,” Fraser said.

After six months of partnering with Alexander to manage day-to-day operations at Fireman’s Field, Play to Win informed Alexander in July that it would back out of its contract once it helped to organize and run the Purcellville Wine and Food Festival at the end of July.

A month later, Alexander told the town that he would terminate his contract early and cease management of the complex. He rescinded that statement less than two weeks later upon realizing that it would be a breach of contract.

After weeks of negotiations, the Town Council voted on Sept. 25 to eliminate from Alexander’s contract his responsibility to maintain the athletic fields and to reduce his monthly rent payments from $10,000 to $4,000.

The Board of Supervisors one week later voted to approve a lease agreement with the town to resume maintenance and operations of the athletic fields until April 2019. Alexander then subcontracted with the teen center to manage operations in the tabernacle beginning Nov. 1.

In December, a consulting group the town hired to perform an operational audit recommended 48 changes to the government structure, including suggestions to create four full-time positions across three departments. Fraser said the town in the coming months would rank those recommendations and consider how to implement them.

“The operational assessment did yield the constructive feedback we sought by confirming our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and, to a degree, our threats,” he said.

The year in Purcellville wrapped up with a Town Council vote on Dec. 19 to amend Alexander’s contract once more, this time hammering out minor details requiring him to annually submit the town with plans ensuring that regular operations are adequately staffed and detailing proposed programming fees.

Fraser said that while the town welcomed more than 50 new businesses and reduced debt by $5 million in 2018, it’s now focused on multiple goals moving into 2019. Those include accelerating traffic and infrastructure improvements projects, opening the Purcellville Museum at the Train Station and generating more revenue from town-owned property so that it’s not forced to rely on substantial utility fees increases.

pszabo@loudounnow.com

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